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NEA News

Education Support Professionals Winter 2017

In this section, two articles highlight the plight of ESPs in Delaware organizing for better working conditions and in Utah, where better benefits and more work hours highlighted the discussions.
Published: February 1, 2017

Key Takeaways

  1. Delaware food service workers sign their first bargaining contract, resulting in a boost in performance, productivity, and job retention.
  2. Utah Association President, the state’s ESP Of The Year, and ESPs from seven school districts met up to discuss grievances.
  3. Empowered ESPs negotiate a contract that for the first time ensures them multiple protections: a grievance process; standard leave policies; overtime pay; professional development.

Food Service Workers Unionize

It’s mid-morning. Food service workers at Dunbar Elementary School in Laurel, Del., are preparing barbecue chicken with honey mustard and sweet potato fries for almost 350 students and staff.

While Terri Morris monitors hundreds of chicken legs, breasts, and wings in the industrial-sized oven, Holly Timmons stands 10 feet away in the prep room gingerly placing biscuits on bread trays. The workers have already prepared the other menu items: tossed salads, fresh fruits, and vegetables.

“How’s your mom?” Timmons asks co-worker Alice Bradshaw as she speeds past Morris and Timmons on her way to the cafeteria delivery area.

“She’s fine, thank you,” says Bradshaw, without breaking stride. Cindy Ridinger is standing right outside the kitchen preparing piglets (sausage wrapped in a miniature pancake) for the next day’s breakfast.

“That’s good,” says Ridinger, skillfully rolling the next piglet as Bradshaw whisks by her, too. Bradshaw grabs a dolly and doesn’t waste a second carefully stacking then wheeling several 25-pound boxes of frozen meat into the freezer.

“It takes teamwork to work in a school kitchen,” says Morris, who has worked for the Laurel School District as a food service worker for 24 years, the last 18 at Dunbar. “And respect for one another.”

Morris explains that there has been a boost in performance, productivity, and retention since food service workers in district kitchens signed their first bargaining contract in March of 2016, establishing the Laurel School District Food Service Workers (LSDFSW).

“It’s a new day,” she says. “We work hard and the contract is an acknowledgement of the respect we always deserved.”

Ridinger expresses her delight with the contract in one word: “Protection.”

Empowered ESPs Find Their Voice 

The two-year contract is in effect through 2018, and ensures that for the first time these education support professionals (ESPs) can rely on having a grievance process, standard leave policies, overtime pay, professional development, seniority consideration for job openings, and a 15-minute break between breakfast and lunch shifts.

“You can’t put a price on that contract for what it signifies,” Morris adds. “It means we are empowered as individuals and as a group.”

Along with Morris, Penny Dukes of North Laurel Elementary School in Laurel, Del., is credited with inspiring food service workers at Dunbar, North Laurel, and Laurel’s middle and high schools, to join the Laurel Education Association (LEA). The group’s members include approximately 125 teachers, 55 paraeducators, plus custodians, and clerical service workers. LEA is affiliated with the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA). 

“We take pride in our work,” says Dukes, a 25-year veteran with the district.

While workplace pride and respect between colleagues and managers is now evident, there was a time when a district food service manager disrespected workers.

“When administrators learned what was going on in our school kitchens, they were shocked,” says Dukes. In addition to verbal abuse and public shaming, cafeteria workers were expected to work extended hours on short notice without pay to complete tasks dictated by the district officer.

In the spring of 2015, Morris and Dukes began to speak with colleagues about the toxic environment that had developed in school kitchens across the district. However, they knew they had no access, influence, or leverage with district officials.

“We had no voice at the table and that had to change,” Dukes says. “We were losing workers with decades of experience who decided to retire early because they couldn’t take it anymore.”

Working with Teachers 

Finally, at a fall meeting in 2015, 19 out of 20 district food service workers voted to join LEA. While these ESPs now had a foot in the door, they did not have a seat at the table until a contract was negotiated.

“In the beginning, even after the vote, some workers were scared of losing their jobs if they participated,” says Dukes. “But we knew we were not alone anymore.”

LEA President Sue Darnell understood the plight of these workers better than anyone. She had been their unofficial advisor.

“They didn’t have anyone to speak up for them,” says Darnell, a teacher at Dunbar for 26 years. “I’d try and advocate for them even though they weren’t LEA members, but I was told by administrators, ‘You don’t represent them.’ The door was shut.”

During the four sessions leading up to a negotiated contract, Darnell says Morris and Dukes sat confidently across the table from district supervisors and made their case against workplace bullying. The timing for negotiations in spring benefited the food service workers, because of recent leadership changes at the district level.

A Refreshing Mix of Leadership and Collaboration

“There was a new mindset among district officials taking shape at the time,” Darnell says. The manager who caused a ruckus for food service workers resigned about the time the contract was being negotiated.

“We want to encourage food service workers to view themselves as educators who are valued for their service,” says assistant superintendent Ashley Giska, who led the district’s negotiating team. “It’s easy for them to be viewed as outsiders. We want to alleviate that.”

Since the contract was signed, Darnell says Giska and other district officials have been quick to address member concerns.

“We set ground rules and keep to them,” Darnell says. “We agreed to be respectful, focus on problem solving, and honor the privacy of what is discussed.”

Road Trip:  Meeting ESPs Where They Live

Utah Association President And The State’s Esp Of The Year Talk Education With School Support Staff

By Sara Robertson

Last September, Utah School Employees Association (USEA) President Jerad Reay and Utah ESP of the Year Colleen Mutcher welcomed education support professionals (ESPs) from seven school districts back to school, and also listened to workplace concerns. USEA is NEA’s only all-ESP state affiliate, and represents support staff from all nine ESP career categories. Reay and Mutcher visited district offices, central kitchens, bus and maintenance facilities, and K–12 schools and facilities that cater specifically to students with special needs. 

“So many Utah support staff don’t know there is an organization that advocates for them and their students, so we wanted to take the opportunity to discuss not just the benefits of being a member, but to really thank them for all they do. ESPs so rarely feel appreciated for all the effort and care they put into their jobs every day,” Reay told the workers.

Reay and Mutcher spent hours speaking with bus drivers, food service professionals, paraeducators, custodians, clerical staff, and maintenance workers. 

“Listening to our members helps inform our priorities as a representative organization, and Utah ESPs are really struggling. Low wages and the loss of healthcare benefits are causing our school support staff to leave for the private sector. They love and care for their students, but so many of those we spoke to made it clear that they can no longer afford to work in Utah’s schools,” says Reay.

Hours Cut Short

Utah’s student enrollment is up 10 percent over the last five years, yet more and more ESPs are having work hours cut by their districts. Currently, any employee who works an average of at least 30 hours per week, for more than 120 days in a year, qualifies as a full-time employee and is therefore eligible to participate in district-provided health insurance coverage. Increasingly, school staff are having their hours cut to below that threshold and they are being directed to utilize plans offered under the Affordable Care Act.

“But with little or no increases in salary to offset the cost of those healthcare premiums, many public employees we spoke to cannot afford that health insurance for themselves or their families,” said Reay. Utah currently ranks 23rd in the nation for school support staff pay, according to the 2015 NEA ESP Databook. 

One food service professional in the Jordan school district who asked not to be identified recently had her hours cut to just two hours per day. As a result, she no longer qualifies for healthcare coverage for herself and her young children, and can’t receive paid sick leave.

“If my kids are sick and I can’t find or afford to hire someone to stay home with them, I can’t work so I don’t get paid,” she said. “I worry about losing my job if I call out of work too frequently.” Her current salary: $11 an hour before taxes.

‘We Used to Have Great Benefits’

Tim Bell worked for seven years as a custodian in the Weber school district: “I became a custodian because I love the kids and we used to have great benefits. The pay was okay, but I was able to provide healthcare benefits for my family. Now that many districts have done away with healthcare benefits and the hourly wages remain so low, we are losing people right and left.” 

Tim recently joined USEA as a UniServ director. His duties include helping local USEA affiliates bargain contracts with their districts. He meets with hundreds of Utah ESPs every month and says the concerns he hears about most often are persistent low pay, no benefits, and burn out. 

“Utah school support staff see that they can get paid more hourly at McDonald’s or Starbucks, but hate the idea of leaving the students they serve. But the fact is, they need the hours and salary so they can provide for their own families,” says Bell. “They just can’t afford to stay, and the students are the ones who suffer.”  

Sandi Thomas is the former president of the Tooele ESP Association and is a registrar for the Tooele County school district. In October, the district’s website listed 19 support professional employee positions. Thomas says the district is having difficulty filling those positions and keeping them filled.

“When people realize that they can’t get the hours and benefits they need to care for their families, they leave for jobs that do provide them with that stability,” she says. 

ESP Turnover Hurts Schools, Students

Thomas says the turnover and short staffing is having an impact on the entire school. “Part-time paraeducator and food service jobs are opening all the time, as are other ESP jobs. Our teachers, lunch managers, and bus trainers are spending so much of their time training new employees and everyone is just spread so thin.” Thomas feels that investing in the health and well-being of the education workforce pays dividends for students. Students deserve the experience, dedication, and care that career educators provide.”

Utah ESP of the Year Colleen Mutcher understands Thomas’s concerns. As a 24-year veteran paraeducator in the Park City school district working intensively with students with special needs, she sees the impact high turnover has on students.

“Students and paras develop a very special relationship and in many cases, that para [educator] is a student’s voice and personal advocate in the school.” Mutcher says that her school just had two new paraeducators leave their jobs after three months. “The work is hard physically and emotionally,” says Mutcher. This tour has allowed me to see that I am not alone. I met so many paraeducators who are dealing with the same issues I am.” The tour was bittersweet for Mutcher, who says it’s “heartbreaking to hear from so many dedicated educators that they may have to leave their professions because they aren’t receiving the compensation they deserve or the support they need.”  

ESP Working Conditions and Pay an Issue

Mutcher joined the school district in 1992 because she wanted a job that allowed her to be on a similar schedule as her two sons and provided healthcare benefits for her family, including her husband, who is self-employed. She had to work for several years at minimum wage, which in the 1990s was only $5.25 an hour. When she was designated a full-time employee, Mutcher qualified for step increases and healthcare benefits. Still, after 24 years, her salary is just $18 an hour. She hasn’t received any kind of raise or cost of living adjustment in five years.  

Mutcher and Reay sat down with Utah education reporter Tori LaRue in September to discuss working conditions and compensation for ESPs, and the ongoing Utah educator shortage. Mutcher discussed the injuries she’s suffered at the hands of her students who have special physical or behavioral needs, and the stress that high turnover puts on her and her colleagues. “The shortage is really scaring me. Who will take care of these students who so badly need our help?” mused Mutcher.  

“Why do you stay?” asked LaRue.

 “Oh, for the students. Helping them make gains physically, academically, and emotionally is just so rewarding. I love those kids,” Mutcher answered.  

USEA is working with NEA and other partners to deliver quality, relevant professional development to Utah ESPs. In October, approximately 50 Utah paraeducators and other ESPs attended a para power workshop that brought in education experts to train on behavior management strategies and positive intervention supports, building effective paraeducator/teacher teams, advocacy, and problem solving.

Despite the issues being faced by Utah ESPs, USEA President Reay remains optimistic.

“Positive change happens through collective action. We are working to help Utah ESPs come together and advocate for their students and for themselves,” says Reay. “We know that by providing quality professional development and helping our educators bargain for the pay and benefits they deserve, they can continue providing great care for our students.” 


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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.